Westmont Magazine A Passion for Theology
Recognized as a leading American theologian and the author of significant works of theology, Kevin Vanhoozer ’78 will accept the Alumnus of the Year award at Homecoming 2003. Christianity Today featured him in a 1999 cover story on six new theologians, and his scholarly work has received wide acclaim.
After graduating from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and earning a Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge University in England, Kevin taught at the University of Edinburgh for eight years before rejoining the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois as a research professor in 1998.
His arrangement with Trinity (one-semester sabbaticals in two of every three years) enables him to pursue his calling as both a teacher and a scholar.
“If I only did writing, I would become distant and isolated from some of the live questions articulated in the classroom,” he explains. “Students question and challenge you, which gives you something to take back to your research. At the same time, the writing gives you something fresh to say in class. I see it as an ongoing dialogue.”
His passion for theology, which grew during his years at Westmont, has never waned. The excitement he brings to his work makes him an appealing and effective apologist.
“I’m enthusiastic about everything I teach,” he says. “I’m never bored, and I find all my classes exciting. I chalk it up to the subject matter; how can I lose with theology?
“To do theology is to seek to know and to love God on the basis of the Scriptures in a way that makes sense of our situation in life,” he adds. “Theology is about wisdom, about competent, reflective living so that God is glorified. My work attacks the prejudice that theology and life are unrelated.”
A new book expands this concept. In “The Drama of Doctrine,” Kevin explores the nature of doctrine, comparing it to a theatrical script that outlines the major action. “Doctrine helps us understand the action and directs us in participating in it. It is direction for life, knowing how to follow the way, the truth and the life.”
Kevin sees a place for improvisation in the Christian life and rejects the idea of doctrines as simply stating timeless truths dervied from Scripture. “We have to be faithful to the script, but we also have to fit it into the contemporary occasion,” he says.
While some Christians find this approach threatening, Kevin considers it essential. For him, doctrine and theology are living, vital subjects, and grappling with them is a risky, messy enterprise — but one well worth the effort.
Kevin writes for serious students of theology, which he says includes lay people as well as scholars and seminary students.
“Years ago I decided that for every book I publish for a university press, I will do one for a religious house. I think we are best served when the academy and the church are in dialogue with each other, and I try to heal the gap that I sense exists between the two.”
His books include “Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Zondervan 1998) and “First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics” (InterVarsity Press, 2002).
He is editor (with Philip Clayton ’78) of “New Studies in Constructive Theology,” a series of textbooks on Christian doctrine, of “The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology,” and of a major new reference work, now in progress, “Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of Scripture.”
Much of Kevin’s work has focused on hermeneutics, which he regards as a means to an end. “Hermeneutics is about how to interpret the Bible in the present,” he explains. “Where do we hear the word of God and how do we hear it? I want to hear the word of the Lord, so that’s why I get involved in this discussion.”
Inspired by Professor Robert Gundry, now scholar in residence at Westmont, Kevin thought about entering his field of New Testament studies. “Dr. Gundry convinced me that what we really need is systematic theologians who can work with the biblical text but also understand philosophy and have wide interests. This did seem to ring true to my interests and passions; he must have perceived something in me, because he was dead right. I am very grateful that he pointed me in the direction of theology.”
Kevin, who grew up in Carpinteria, Calif., and attended Cate School, majored in both religious studies and philosophy at Westmont. Widely involved in musical activities, he was often asked to be a music major.
He participated in a reading group with English Professor Arthur Lynip, and did creative writing. “I was busy and involved in the life of the mind,” he recalls.
“My Westmont training gave me a vision that theology should be integrative,” he says. “Watching people of faith integrate it with the arts and sciences inspired me and helped me understand the importance of imagination, of combining head, heart and hands.”
Kevin is a classical pianist and a devoted musician. He has enjoyed accompanying his two teenage daughters, who both play violin and piano, at their recitals.
In 2000, he gave a lecture/recital at Westminster, “What Does Vienna Have to Do With Jerusalem?” as part of a conference on faith and the arts. He moved back and forth from the piano to the lectern, playing pieces by Brahms and talking about the relationship between music and theology.
He met his wife, Sylvie, when he spent a year in France after college doing evangelism through a series of classical music concerts. She has homeschooled their daughters and teaches French at a country day school.
Kevin and his family enjoyed their eight years in Edinburgh. A senior lecturer in theology and religious studies at New College, faculty of divinity in the University of Edinburgh, he taught around the corner from the castle. “Every day, a cannon blast ended my lecture at 1 p.m.,” he recalls.
“It was a tremendous growth opportunity, having students who weren’t conservative or evangelical,” he adds. “I had to grow into doing theology in this setting. It took a few years to have an intelligent strategy, especially as I taught both undergraduate and graduate students. They came from a variety of countries, including India, Korea and Kenya, and it was good for me to have diverse classes. Theology can become ingrown and too Western and develop blind spots. It is very healthy to address the church worldwide.”
An ordained elder in the Church of Scotland, Kevin found himself at the center of national controversies on doctrine when he served on the church’s Panel on Doctrine. Because of his expertise in hermeneutics, he was asked to write the final section of the report, “Guidelines to Biblical Interpretation,” which the church adopted in 1997.
In this, as in all his endeavors, Kevin continues his quest to unite theology and life, to understand how to “live well and intelligently in the world so that God is glorified.”